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10 May 2017

notes from vietnam

Through Apocalypse Now and various wartime milieu my mind's view of Vietnam was one of savage jungles, steaming low rivers, and a mad Marlon Brando. In reality the 'Nam I saw bore none of that snarling foreboding. No moss-laden mist creeping through the rurality. More of a...

Beep beep! The sounds of frenetic moped horns. Beep beep beep! Move out the way, this place will not move for you. Vehicular molecules sticking together like a jelly made of exhaust fumes, moulding to fit any narrow lane that might move them forward. Like bolts of electricity they zip and they zap, sometimes on the road, sometimes on the pavement. They'll run you down if you don't... RUN. It's stressful, it's anxiety inducing, it's nonsensical and nonplussing at times, but it's also exhilarating.

We arrived in Hanoi after a 12 hour Thai sleeper train followed by a six hour stint in Bangkok airport followed by a flight. To say we were knackered when we arrived would be an understatement. The heavy weight of constant moving is something we've had to acclimatise to greatly on this trip - sometimes you thrive on the lifeblood of the forever new, your eyes craving sights unseen, your body relishing the streets unwalked. Occasionally you just want to curl up in your bunk for days, and dream wistfully of England. Sometimes.

Our trip to Vietnam was one of extreme motion, with us never stopping in a place for longer than 2 days. We had 15 day free visas and so the mission was to make the most of it - to see this great, historically and culturally dense slice of the world in 2 weeks flat. Gulp.

In Hanoi the streets were alive with Parisian flare - doughy bread and cheap beer, cigarette smoke caressing parfum in the sky, neon lakes that's banks held women and men dancing in tandem, small fluffy dogs running past your feet as mopeds zoom like lightning past your legs, a botanic ceiling hanging above you of leaves and greenery, a mist of romance lingering in the French Quarter. This city felt emerged in modernity and technology, and also like a bygone era all at once.

By Hoan Kiem Lake university students approached to ask us questions in confused English. One girl called us beautiful, then proceeded to sing a Vietnamese pop song for us among the music-related stunted back and forth. We witnessed a television crew stopping traffic on the busiest roundabout of the city, the celebrities dancing silently in front of the lenses while the city's soundtrack buzzed loudly in the background. We ate at Bahn Mi 25 and drank egg coffee at a coffee shop covered in post-it notes.

From Hanoi, we travelled by bus to our Halong Bay boat. The weather was overcast - grey and ghoulish, and the coast lined with identical ships bearing streams of excited passengers. Tourists, tourists, tourists. Sunglasses on heads, beers in hands. We set sail and quickly realised we were 3 of 11 on board, with a whole host of nationalities among us. On the second day we sailed an hour further to the quieter shores of Cat Ba and Monkey Island. Over those days we climbed an island, we swam, we were led by Linda who loved innuendos, we swiped away monkeys, we marvelled endlessly at the natural beauty. It was paradise.

After the bay came Hue, and a horrendous journey on a sleeper train with 10 people crammed into a cell-like carriage. I laid awake for the 10 hour journey feeling like the beds above would topple on me while families of three slept soundly on one bunk. Suitcases crowded the floors. Claustrophobia struck like a punch. I was glad to be off of it, I'll tell you that.

Hue was a riverside city, dressed colourfully in festival corsage. The celebration of the end of the war had occurred the weekend before, and now the Food Festival took its place. We visited the old Citadel of the last monarchy, the many miles of it, in the blistering heat, soaking in the architecture and the lakes from the safety of the shade.

After Hue came Hoi An, and it's twinkling lanterns. We made our way there by car, upgraded to a minivan for the four of us, stopping at lagoons, Hai Van Pass, the old Chinese border, Marble Mountain, and Da Nang Beach. I've never experienced an ocean so warm. Da Nang is a melting pot of new developments, having recently been rid of the final traces of the ruins of chemical warfare by the Obama Administration. It sits as a shell of a promising future Palm Springs. Promise, that's what the entire country bellows.

In Hoi An at night, the landscape was dotted with brightly coloured orbs that illuminated the river and the bridges. The shop fronts were all made of incredible wood, and talented tailoresses flogged their dresses from the street in front. We rented bikes from our hotel (a hotel- what bliss!) and peddled down to Ang Bang Beach for the day and for dinner past the rice fields and the cows pacing the chaotic roads. By the sea kites flew in the air, children in life jackets bobbed along the shallows, and we sat warmly on the sand collecting the sights and sounds.

Nha Trang came next, the diving capital of Vietnam. The mini St. Petersburg of Asia. Every restaurant's menu bore Vietnamese and Russian, and the beach held a poolside bar teaming with oiled Europeans.

Then it was time for Ho Chi Minh City, the ol' Miss Saigon. It was hot, bustling and frantic, like the racing heart of the beast. With one day there, we stepped off the flight, flung our bags down in the hostel, and hot-tailed out into the heat to explore. The War Remnants Museum was an interesting experience for me, having been educated in America. I saw, as I did in Hanoi at the Ho Chi Minh Museum, the different side of the narrative, one that makes truer sense. Remainders of prisons, torture weapons, and Agent Orange. Generations with stolen limbs, disfigurations and disabilities, bestowed on them by the dark hand of napalm. The seeds of a land pummelled with poison.

Later we saw Notre Dame, and the Saigon Post Office, a yellow building with boundless ceilings and busyness. Through the streets we wandered, past the street side shacks, then the Moschino and Chanel stores, the French architecture and the glowing highliners, ablaze with bourgeoise. Bikes rode past us as we walked by the water, not giving a single fuck. It was like a drip of adrenaline soaring into my veins being there.

Vietnam, I saw you as an electric vision. The diamonds and the rough. The promise and the poor. A land finally on its feet after the most violent of pasts. People with high spirits, telling stories of deceased loved ones while still mustering a smile. Dogs yowling in sadness, chains around their necks. Tourists beginning an invasion. The conical hat, becoming a rarity while also a caricature.

We travelled the metal route, through cities on train tracks, due to our lack of time, our reliance on public transport, and to the unpredictable weather. Next time I'd visit Sapa, along with the famous caves of the North and head to more of the villages. But for now, I'll hold close the memories of bahn mi on the pavement, a symphony of motor horns, and the encapsulating spirit and history of this evocative and amazing nation.



  1. Fantastic colors and composure in that railroad shot! 🔮🙏


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